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61* the Year of the Big Bats

Jan 1, 2008
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Thomas Janes, Barry Pepper, story, larger than life characters

Cons:Some still want to deny Roger Maris his record

The Bottom Line: A well crafted human interest story that reveals the faces of the contenders in the 1961 home run race.


61* (2001)

"[They were the] mighty men of old, men of renown." Gen. 6:4

The story behind the breaking of Babe Ruth's unapproachable home run record is something that nobody knows for sure.

I was a kid when the Yankees had the two greatest sluggers in baseball lined up back to back and yet with all the reporters and fans who witnessed the events of 1961 firsthand, no two seem to agree. That said, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of director Billy Crystal's depiction of the season, focusing on the fans' darling Mickey Mantle and the aloof Roger Maris, but I can say Mr. Crystal did fulfill the obligation of a moviemaker: He did entertain, and 61* is a credit to the sports genre, with few equals.

It would seem that something as recent in history as 1961 would be exhaustively documented, yet the news reporters apparently pursued the story with their own private agendas and wrote what they wanted to regardless of the facts.

I know that as a boy and man that every time the subject of the home run record came up among fans there was controversy as to whether Roger Maris had actually beaten Babe Ruth's immortal record. Many people felt that since the season had been lengthened by 8 games that Ruth's record of 60 home runs still had not been surpassed when Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961 with its longer season.

But as time went by it seemed that in the last ten years many people relaxed their expectations and accepted the steroid-fueled home run streaks of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds without a lot of comment, which I know makes the old school baseball fan vomit up a little into their mouth. In 1961 this was controversy of the utmost moment, and to this day the dispute has never been solved to the satisfaction of the rabid baseball fan.

Billy Crystal took the occasion of Mark McGwire's 1998 record season where he equaled and surpassed Roger Maris’ 37 year old record. McGwire's home run blasts number 61 and 62 were used to bookend the story of the Yankees' 1961 season, the season that two giants went for the home run record set by Babe Ruth 34 years before.

Mickey Mantle (Thomas Janes) and Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) were both great all round baseball players and both were from the sticks; both had fathers who had taught them to play baseball from their youth, but their temperaments were totally different.

According to the movie, Mantle was a cheerful, easygoing party animal who had a way with the NY press, even though he was from Oklahoma. Maris, who had been acquired from Kansas City, was taciturn and private with seemingly no real concern for what people thought. He was there to play baseball and get back to his family in Kansas as soon as possible. The press did not take to his reticence and began to make up things about him.

Mantle tried to coach Maris how to use the press but until he finally got to setting his record, only one newspaper reporter (Richard Masur) took his part. They all got on board as they saw Maris persevere despite horrific hazing by the newspapers and Yankee fans who loved Babe Ruth and thought that if anybody should break his record, it should be Mantle.

The movie showed that Mantle was a very easy going guy and he and Maris were close friends in private life. The way we always heard it, they were bitter rivals, but I guess that sells newspapers. I have to commend Billy Crystal for taking a couple of icons most of us knew only from baseball cards and box scores and giving them a human face. Both Janes and Pepper were mesmerizing in their characterizations, as were the supporting cast selected to portray Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard, and other Yankee greats.

The HBO DVD is presented in color, in 1.85:1 format, with a 129 minute running time. There is a commentary and documentary included as extra features.

In another two hundred years the story of Roger Maris' record year may be boiled down to legend, the essential facts "known" to every schoolboy, just as everybody today knows that Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927.

I recommend everybody see this movie whether they are baseball fan or not. It is a tremendous human interest story, well told.


Recommend this product? Yes

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